Movies are a grand form of escapism. They help us momentarily forget the problems or events of our current lives and offer us the ability to be entertained for their runtime. But sometimes movies can be pretty damn tough to sit through. Whether they deal with traumatic themes or they’re based off of a tragic event from history, some films seem less like light hearted pastimes and more like endurance tests in intensity.
However, this article isn’t a protest cry against those films. In fact we need heavy films like Silence just as much as we need joyful ones like My Neighbour Totoro. Intense movies with dark material or ugly scenes are not always the most comfortable to sit through but they do serve a purpose in that they can challenge the viewer with its themes or have them bear witness to a moment in history that shook the world to its core. Such films come in the form of disturbing subject matters, such as Requiem for a Dream or Prisoners, or insightful looks into history’s darkest moments like 12 Years a Slave. However it’s important to recognise when films are using this material sensibly or when they’re using tragic events and extreme measures just to get a quick buck.
Examples of intense material being handled incorrectly include when a film uses a terrible event in history but doesn’t really utilise it. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour is very guilty of this. To his credit Michael Bay is so good at making juvenile trash yet profiting so much from it that it’s hard to know whether he should be branded a cinematic crusader or a marketing genius. While Pearl Harbour may not technically be as bad as the Transformers films, it’s an ideal example of using a tragedy as a means to an end and doing it rather embarrassingly. Although primarily a Titanic rip off when the film finally does tackle the events of December 7th 1941, the treatment is borderline insulting. It treats military men like clowns and egotists and blatantly alters events that really took place, fictionalising them in order to make Bay seem more patriotic if you can even call it that. It’s not done to capture a gut-wrenching moment – it’s done purely for the sake of money. But then again when was a Bay film not all about the money?
Others include the Saw or Human Centipede franchises which are quite appropriately categorised as ‘Torture Porn’. The events of these films are undoubtedly heavy but aside from maybe the first entries, they’re all just there to showcase gore and not to treat their dark themes with dignity or maturity. In fact they almost glorify them. One does not have to be a film obsessive to know why these films don’t handle their intense themes well. And let’s not even get started on I Spit on Your Grave.
Thankfully though, when done in the right way intense movies can not only be entertaining but even enlightening or educational. The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas for example isn’t a great film (showing the Holocaust from the perspective of an outsider rather than a victim is an arguably flawed choice of narrative) but if shown to a young person at just the right age it can act as the gateway to introducing them to the full extent of the historical horrors in question. From a more entertaining standpoint, Deepwater Horizon is basically a Michael Bay film if you actually gave a shit about the characters but it takes its time in setting up the people who were involved in the disaster and shows us in a very humanistic way how this affected ordinary people just doing their jobs.
What these films teach us is that the best kind of intense films are the ones that not only bring attention to its subject matter but the ones that treat it with respect. That applies to historical films like those above as well as original movies with hard hitting commentary such as Fearless or, more recently, I, Daniel Blake. By doing this they not only give audiences the entertainment they seek but also provide compelling studies of their themes that will have people dwelling on them for as long as days after seeing the film.
Intense movies are just as vital as light hearted ones at times and most people will be able to find a healthy balance between the two. Every so often we need to be challenged by a heavy movie and if we’re going to watch one we may as well pick a sturdy one. We’ll always have great exuberant movies like La La Land or most Disney and Studio Ghibli films but then again who ever said all films needed to be happy? Sometimes happiness is overrated.